Down Your Alley: Cloth Fair

With a slight nod to Brexit last month we went down Little Britain that at its western end lays one of the few parts of London seemingly untouched with the passage of time. Turn right at the end of Little Britain into Cloth Fair, here there are numerous passages and alleys. The first alleyway is on the right is Barley Mow Passage which undoubtedly derived from a predecessor of the Barley Mow public house which stands on the east side at number 56 Long Lane.
[T]he first tavern on this site was probably built in the early 17th century but the present house is modern – although in a tasteful style. Whilst only dating back to the early years of this century it retains an atmosphere typically encountered in a hostelry of much more ancient times. The decor is solid – heavy cast-iron tables, real wooden panelling to the walls and Victorian mirrors in the servery.

Barley Mow Passage

Barley Mow Passage

Almost every corner along the length of Long Lane once sported a tavern. John Stow, on his perambulations down the Lane, summed it up thus: ‘the rest of Smithfield from Long Lane end to the bars is enclosed with inns, brew houses, and large tenements.’ Of these long departed taverns the Old Dick Whittington was a particular favourite. It stood in Cloth Fair and was reputed to have been the oldest licensed establishment in London. Its doors closed for the final time in 1916. Now, the Barley Mow is one of the few surviving in the vicinity of St Bartholomew’s.

Cloth Court

Cloth Court

The next alley on our left is Cloth Court and it would be reasonable to assume that somewhere back in time there might have been a drapers shop around here. Cloth Fair and its surroundings have a long history associated with the drapery and tailoring trade. However, the history of the area goes back a little further than the establishment of the clothing trade. It all started when Rahere, one of Henry I’s favourite courtiers, woke up with a start and decided to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. While he was there he caught a bug and became violently ill with sickness, diarrhoea, the shakes and other conceivable symptom. It was touch and go but within a few days, as though affected by some divine power, he was miraculously restored to full health. Feeling assured that this was the work of heaven, he vowed, in gratitude, that when he returned home he would build a hospital for the treatment of those of unsound financial means. As he stepped back onto the shores of England he was halted in his tracks by a vision of a towering man before him. The vision declared himself to be Bartholomew and he told Rahere that along with his hospital he was also to build a great church. Both of these projects he undertook to the best of his ability and by 1150 his great church, or priory, was completed. The Augustinian Order of monks took up residence, with Rahere as the first prior. Funding of the priory and hospital were not easy so Rahere applied to the King and was granted permission to hold an annual August fair to raise money. The scheme was an immediate success and soon became an established event, initially held every August. By tradition, the official opening ceremony was performed by the Mayor from the steps of the Hand and Shears tavern, in Middle Street. His loud declaration was followed by letting loose a dozen or so rabbits into the milling throng, which were chased by a noisy gang of ruffians. Cattle traders from far and wide set up a market here, later designated as the official London cattle market with the stipulation that no other was to be opened within seven miles radius. Clothing traders and drapers soon latched on to the idea of opening stalls and before too long the fair developed into the largest cloth and clothing event in the country. It first of all lasted for three days and from the 16th century it was extended to a fortnight.

Like all good things, someone had to spoil it. The fair became a place of riots, looting and murder, and it was finally ordered to cease in 1855. However, although the fair ceased to be recognised, in 1884 an article in a local paper reported that trading was still in evidence, stating that the price paid for women varied from one penny to twenty-five guineas. When we considers that the twenty-five guinea quality were as rough as they came, I wonder what one might expect for a penny.

Punters and traders alike would no doubt have called into Ye Olde Dick Whittington tavern which stood on the corner of Kinghorn Street until it was demolished in 1916. The eventual total demise of the fair obviously contributed in a major part to its down fall. Although it had undergone many modifications, like the addition of an 18th century frontage to the ground floor, it held the noble reputation of being London’s oldest tavern. A proud claim indeed, but even in those days competition was tough and just like the present day, there were probably a dozen or more other contenders reaching out for the title.

An exceedingly fine example of a 17th century house (built about 1640) comprising of numbers 41 and 42 Cloth Fair should not be missed. Although it has been renovated it offers an opportunity to see a very small part of the city as it was, prior to being swallowed up by the fire. When gazing at this house it is very easy to slip back a few centuries into the time of Pepys and visualise the London of his day.

Rising Court

Rising Sun Court

The next passage we find is Rising Sun Court this attractive but simple court, brought into full glory in summer months by a display of hanging baskets and window boxes adorning the Rising Sun tavern. A tavern has occupied this corner of Cloth Fair for centuries and many years ago the court running alongside formed its busy yard. During the early 1970’s it seemed that the Rising Sun was destined to go the same way as the dozens of other taverns which once graced the precincts of St Bartholomew’s. It was boarded up with all glimmer of life extinguished from its bowels. Its signboard hung as a weather-beaten faded hue, but Samuel Smith’s came on the scene and injected an overdue dose of revitalisation. In 1573 Inigo Jones, a notable designer of stately buildings who became Surveyor to Prince Henry in 1611, lived near to this Court. He died in 1652.

East Passage

East and Back Passage

The last alleyways to be found along this short street are East Passage and the rather unfortunately named Back Passage. This short passage is a fairly narrow way, covered throughout its length with brick buildings lining both sides and leads to East Passage. In this Passage is Ye Old Red Cow, one of the earliest ancient taverns of Smithfield. It is a place of compact proportions and space within its walls is, to say the least, severely restricted and consequently the luxury of seating around its central servery is very sparse. A painting in the Guildhall depicts the tavern as it appeared in 1854.

The area dates back over 400 years and takes its name from the cloth merchants and tailors of Bartholomew Fair who first began setting up their stalls around here in the mid-12th century. During the 16th century, on the 24th August – St Bartholomew’s day – it was customary for the Lord Mayor to emerge from the Hand and Shears, after sufficiently lubricating his vocal chords, and proclaim the opening of the fair in a very loud voice. However, this procedure was only the ceremonial show put on for the benefit of the gathered crowds of the morning; the actual opening was performed by a group of tailors who spent the evening supping ale. As the clock struck midnight they issued forth into the street waiving shears above their heads proclaiming ‘the proceeding shall begin’. In an upstairs room of the Hand and Shears was held the Court of Pieds Poudres – Dusty Feet, set up to try the cases against traders accused of selling short measure and other unethical practices.

Bartholomew Fair officially ceased in 1855 but the Meat Market, built on the site of a cattle market established at Bartholomew Fair when general traders were authorised to sell their wares, is still operating. Built in 1867, it occupies a site covering over ten acres, constituting the largest meat market in the world.

Barley Mow Passage Oxyman (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Cloth Court Alan Murray-Rust (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Rising Sun Court Ian S (CC BY-SA 2.0)
East Passage Derek Harper (CC BY-SA 2.0)

CabbieBlog-cabMuch of the original source material for Down Your Alley has been derived from Ivor Hoole’s GeoCities website. The site is now defunct and it is believed Ivor is no more. Thankfully much of Ivor’s work has been archived by Ian Visits and Phil Gyford.

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